Beyond the Limbo of the Union
We are in a state of what the late Tom Nairn called ‘constitutional catatonia’.
The current internal splits and schisms across the SNP and wider Yes movement are not just about ‘gradualists’ versus ‘fundamentalists’ (an increasingly redundant dichotomy) but about left and right. As the SNP meet in the Caird Hall in Dundee, to discuss who knows what – Fergus Ewing has become the strange figure to rally-around for many of Humza Yousaf’s critics, of all political stripes, but mostly the right-wing of the Scottish nationalist movement and their newly-acquired comrades in the Unionist community. Strange bedfellows for strange times. The writer Paul Kavanagh has caused outrage by branding Mr Ewing a Tory, and saying the only thing that separates him from “yer actual Tories” was his belief in Scottish independence. But this is just plainly true. It’s just a simple fact.
The dictum ‘my enemies enemy is my friend’ leads you almost always to some dark places and here we have a horde of reactionary forces rallying around Fergus Ewing – not out of support for his policies – nor for love of his mother – but out of a virulent hatred of the Greens and everything they stand for. This is the opposite of the Sins of your Father – instead Ewing’s own politics are being whitewashed by the memory of his mother.
Labour’s Brian Wilson has written in The Scotsman: “Perhaps this offers an opportunity for Mr Yousaf to press the pause button and respect the possibility that Fergus is right and the policies are wrong.” What, all the policies? Yes, the suggestion is that a political party should pivot to reject all of the policies that one MSP can’t thole. One single outlier MSP – who just happens to share 99% of the ideology of the writer and his movement – should be used to abandon a legislative programme.
This is daft. It’s naked Unionist opportunism and it won’t get far, other than to stir the masses around the fetid alliances of conservative forces coalesced across the parties.
But as much in this – the apparent binaries we are presented with are not what they seem.
The choice is not between ‘Continuity SNP’ and some other force or party of independence. The choice isn’t ‘Yousaf or Salmond’ because neither is credible. Nor is it ‘Ewing or Slater’ as some commentators would love to frame it. Nor is it ‘gradualist’ or ‘fundamental’ because there are no apparent routes for a sudden transformative rise to independence. Nor is their a real dichotomy between critical appraisal of Sturgeon’s leadership and the fact that it was the UK that built a roadblock to democracy. That’s not Sturgeon’s fault. Us independence supporters were naive enough to think this was a democracy we were living in.
To suggest that the alternative parties – such as there are – have no credibility – strategy or likelihood of success – is not to strap your self to the failed record of the SNP leadership – it is simply to state a fact. The reality is the independence movement needs to be re-built from the ground up, having learnt some very harsh lessons from the past decade. What are those lessons?
One of the first might be – as we are discovering this week – that the left-right spectrum still counts – now more than ever – as the ‘cost of living crisis’ rolls on and social inequality is brutally amplified. Building a movement – and a case for independence – relies on arguing for how a new nation would transform Scottish society and do so in a way that responds to the economic crisis we see unfolding around us. ‘Britain is for the rich, Scotland can be ours’ used to be the slogan, and it should be again. Covering up for the nationalist right, or making alliances between Tories, Unionists and ‘populists’ does none of this.
The second is that – despite the waves of hostility raining down on the greens – and anyone with the temerity to suggest we might actually, you know, do something, the ecological crisis in all its many forms, isn’t just going away. It’s a darkly ironic version of the ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’ trope that Scotland shouldn’t create it’s own climate justice strategies – or god forbid it’s own recycling scheme. This is not to suggest that the Scottish Greens haven’t made mistakes – they really really have – but much of the hostility directed at them has little or nothing to do with policy or policy error – it is part of a wider generational and ideological resistance to change.
Third, the SNP have failed to change Scotland in key areas, often areas where they have fully devolved powers. This could be used as a template for a new movement and a new outlook, if we ask ourselves: where are the areas where nothing has happened and why? This could be used as the outline of a new movement. If we take housing, drugs policy and land ownership it’s a track record of ongoing failure. The failure is not just of the SNPs but the political class and its institutions and structures. It feels like political parties not just won’t but can’t effect change. Any political party or movement that is going to tackle land-lordism can’t come from within a rentier class; any political party or movement that wants to have deep solidarity and empathy with people suffering from addiction and deprivation has to have some affinity with and connection to those people; and any political party or movement that genuinely wants to confront Scotland’s land ownership crisis has to have the guts and drive and motivation to confront landed power. While we can bleat that the crisis in rural Scotland is the fault of the ‘terrible metropolitan greens’ i t is really, truly, because the entirety of rural Scotland has been designed as – and run as – a playpark for Britain’s very wealthiest people.
Fourth, beware the shifting sands of politics. Devolution is under sustained attack by the British state in ways that would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. But now we have to defend the modest gains of the devolution settlement, even as it is proving to be a set of relations and powers that are totally inadequate. Any pro-independent Scottish government has to ‘prove itself’ as competent within the strictures of a settlement that is politically and economically insufficient. That’s a double-bind but one that needs confronted. It’s not a positive option for independence to abandon devolution.
Fifth and related, if the British state has been agitated by representatives from Scotland making connections and holding talks with foreign countries, that’s exactly what we should be doing much more of. On all levels the soft-power of cultural exchange, technical communication and political accords should be ramped up as a process of disengagement, definition and assertion.
All of these things are difficult but possible. All of them will require a radical change of how we operate, but all are essential to bring forward the transformative powers we need to be drawing on to effect real change.